Implementing mental health day policies benefits students of all ages

By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer

Despite the constantly tumultuous state of the world, we college students are still waking up every morning to attend classes, search for internships, and participate in extracurricular activities.

Even in pre-pandemic times, college students reported concerningly high rates of mental health struggles. According to a 2019 American College Health Association study, “about 60% of students feel ‘overwhelming’ anxiety, while 40% experience depression so severe they have difficulty functioning.”

Students’ mental health should be prioritized in the same manner as physical health. Taking a mental health day, a day off of classes and commitments for the sake of mental rest, should be a viable option for students, just as we are permitted to take time off when we come down with a cold.

“Especially in this transitional semester, there is definitely a need for students to have days off for whatever reason they need, just because the world is changing quite rapidly,” Student Government Association Secretary of Academics senior Kyle Rufo said. “There needs to be a precedent for students to have mental health days where they can take a break to do what they need to do, whether that means just to rest or to seek some sort of professional counseling service.”

While it is possible for students to simply skip class for a day when they are not feeling well, this has obvious repercussions, such as loss of participation points or missing vital lecture content. Class policies should include mental health days as excused absences. The same support should be given in terms of acquiring make-up work.

In my experience, a number of WC professors already extend this courtesy in their classes. While beneficial, this still places some students at a disadvantage if they are not fortunate enough to be in a class with these policies already in place. The College should create a uniform attendance policy regarding excused mental health absences to allow all students the same opportunity.

“I am unsure if professors are given some sort of back-end standards from the administration about their attendance policies, but I think it is pretty standard to offer three absences without penalty,” Rufo said. “But I don’t think mental health days should dip into these days. There are unforeseen emergencies that can pop up; we need those mental health days to be built in alongside these emergency days the same way sick days are offered.”

College students are not the only ones in need of mental health support. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “between March and May of [2020], hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in the number of mental health emergency visits by kids aged 5 to 11 years old, and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17.”

Clearly, mental health days could benefit younger students as well, especially given the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Illinois, public school students will be allowed to take five mental health days each school year beginning in January 2022, as per a bill signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker in August.

This new policy states that students will not be required to provide their school with a doctor’s note excusing the absence, nor will they have to make up work missed while absent. Additionally, students’ families will be contacted after the student requests a second mental health day to provide mental health resources and recommendations for professional care.

This standard of additional support would also be beneficial on a college campus. The College already offers counseling services, which could be employed should a student demonstrate a need for professional care.

“If it becomes evident that a student is missing multiple days because of mental health matters, there is need for the school to intervene, because the school is responsible for the student’s well-being,” Rufo said. “If there is documentation that the student is not OK, it is up to the school to provide some sort of resource, such as our counseling services or peer advocacy programs.”

Existing accommodations policies could be used as a starting point for a mental health day policy at WC.

“If a student perhaps has a documented mental illness or is seen to be requesting a lot of days off, the Office of Academic Skills should have a mental health day accommodation in place in which certain students can take additional days if needed,” Rufo said. “That is about equity for me because some students obviously have different needs than others and should be supported accordingly.”

In a time of immense nationwide stress, in addition to the everyday stresses of being a student, the College should be working to find new ways to protect students’ mental well-being. The implementation of a mental health day attendance policy ensuring students access to health services and proper self-care time would be a beneficial first step in setting a precedent towards prioritizing mental healthcare.

Photo courtesy of Erica Quinones

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